Junot Díaz & Michael Chabon bring humour and literary insight to IFOA stage

By Iain Reid

© readings.org

A full 20 minutes before Junot Díaz and Michael Chabon take the stage at the Fleck Dance Theatre, a chatty crowd has formed outside. It’s a sell out.

The evening’s moderator, Siri Agrell, welcomes the audience, joking about the possibility, depending on seating arrangement, of being the insides of a “Pulitzer sandwich.”

Chabon reads first. He explains how pleased he is to be included in an event with one of his favourite writers, saying, “I thought he was awesome before you guys did.”

Díaz stands slightly to the right of the podium, shielding his eyes from the overhead lights to get a better look at the crowd. He calls reading with Chabon, “a profound honour.”

Their mutual respect and admiration seems genuine. They appear comfortable together. Along with both authors and Agrell’s inclusion of humour (handfuls of hilarious one-liners that at times border on stand-up) the discussion touches on a variety of more contemplative topics. Chabon and Díaz express their strategic concerns when starting a new work and how it’s essentially a kind of “world building” while creating the proper language.

Also discussed is the practice of writing from the perspective of a different gender or race; its challenges and its potential worth. “Artists aren’t boosters,” says Díaz.

Chabon explains how our desire for strict originality is a relatively new cultural emphasis. Both authors agree a writer is foremost a reader and that it would be impossible to write anything good without attribution. All writers have debts.

12 Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon interview IFOA (c) readings.org

© readings.org

Appropriately, during the Q&A someone asks Díaz about the feeling when reading a perfectly constructed sentence. Díaz acknowledges this feeling and references The English Patient, and a single sentence that has stayed with him since his first reading of the novel. Another audience member calls out that Michael Ondaatje is in the crowd. It’s another moment of a writer expressing sincere gratitude to another. “Well, it’s an honour he’s here,” says Díaz. A fitting end to an excellent evening of readings, insights and discussion.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Iain Reid on twitter at @reid_iain.

Five Questions with… Matt Lennox

© John Brisbane

Matt Lennox will share his debut novel The Carpenter in a Sunday, October 21 round table discussion called Novelists for a New Age.

IFOA: You were a Canadian Forces captain in Afghanistan before becoming a writer. What do soldiers and writers have in common?

Lennox: I don’t know if soldiers and writers have anything directly—any more so than, say, doctors and writers, or garbage collectors and writers—but I am often perplexed at the number of times people have been surprised over the fact that both the writing and the military have played dominant roles in my life, as if the two must necessarily be mutually exclusive, somehow. I suppose my experiences with the military have given me a glimpse into certain facets, shall we say, of the world that inspire the writer’s mind, since the writer’s mind must necessarily nourish itself on different and unique experiences. On the other hand, there have been a number of historical writer/military connections—Tobias Wolff and Hemingway, both of whom I admire, to name a few—so I’d say it’s not so anachronistic as one might think.

IFOA: Tell us about one book that changed your life.

Lennox: A book that changed my life was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. My mother read it to me, a chapter a night, when I was young, which I think engendered in me both a love of reading and of adventure—or misadventure, in many cases – which was most likely the genesis of the writer I am today. Huck Finn remains controversial, even now, due largely to the frequency of a certain word in the text. Although I would characterize the controversy as misguided, that’s a conversation for another day—I mention it only because at the time she read it to me, and this is 25 years ago, my mother explained what the word was, why it was hurtful, and why it was ultimately important to the context and the moral of the story. That was the beginning, for me, of critical thought and dialogue, which I’d say is the most important byproduct of literature.

IFOA: What are your favourite and least favourite words—today, at least?

Lennox: Ha, this is a funny question. I’ll try to answer it as a writer, and I’d like to disclaim to anybody reading this that my thoughts are purely subjective of course. As a writer, my favourite word, or words, are the ones that tell the story with the least amount of extraneous bullshit. If the prose or action or dialogue can be conveyed best, and most directly, with a one- or two-syllable word, my preference is always for that. A good example of this, for me, is the verb “say” or “said,” which is almost always what I’ll use to construct dialogue—said Mary, for instance—over any of the lofty synonyms an over-trying writer can get from the thesaurus. So my least favourite word or words, in this theme, would be interjected or quipped or rejoined, et cetera. I’ve said many things in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever quipped anything. At least I hope not.

IFOA: Your protagonist in The Carpenter, Leland King, is an ex-con and, as the title suggests, a carpenter. Who or what inspired you to create him?

Lennox: Leland King, ex-con and carpenter, is at once wholly his own—which I have to say, as the author—but also owes his creation to a number of real-life people. First, I chose to make him a carpenter because of my own love for the trade, and my own understanding—gained through my dad—of how essentially good it feels to put something together. In German they call it “fingerspitzengefuhl,” which translates more or less as “that finger-tip feeling.” In any case, I knew from the get-go that Lee was to have learned carpentry in prison, which was the start of his redemption.

The real-life people who informed his creation were chiefly Gary Gilmore, from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (as a small tribute, I gave the name Gilmore to one of the characters in my novel), and Roger Caron, Canada’s infamous “Go Boy.” In fact, when I saw Caron’s author photo on an old paperback copy of his book Bingo!, very early in my writing of The Carpenter, I had that fingerspitzengefuhl, and from then on, I knew exactly how Lee appeared in my mind.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I can’t write unless I…

Lennox: I can’t write unless I have a small glass of bourbon to keep me honest while I try to put together my silly little stories. This has been making writing difficult lately, since I’m training for a boxing match at the end of October, and on my trainer’s orders I haven’t had a drop of liquor in the past few weeks. A writer’s dilemma.

IFOA: Bonus question, the International Festival of Authors in one word:

Lennox: Boketto (another word with no direct English analog, this one Japanese).

For more about Lennox and his appearance at IFOA, click here.

Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference

This past August, authors gathered at the Edinburgh to discuss five topics that almost brought writers to blows during the infamous Writers’ Conference of 1962.These five topics will be discussed at IFOA as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.  Authors and audience members are encouraged to join the discussion and tweet from their seats using the hashtag #worldwritersconf. The topics are:

Should Literature be Political?
Style vs. Content
National Literature
Censorship Today
The Future of the Novel

We’re lucky to have a blogger assigned to covering these special events. Vikki VanSickle is the author of the children’s novels Words That Start with a B, Love is a Four-Letter Word, and the upcoming Days That End in Y (February 2013).

© Mischa Bartkow

A former award-winning bookseller and manager of Toronto’s beloved independent bookstore The Flying Dragon Bookshop, she now works in marketing at HarperCollins Canada. VanSickle is also a former reviewer for Canadian Children’s Book News, CM Magazine, and kid’s book panelist for CBC’s Fresh Air, and now blogs about children’s literature on her popular blog, pipedreaming. Follow her on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

For the full list of Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference events, visit readings.org.

On Virtual Proximity and Self-Promotion

“The distance between writers and readers has vanished.”

By Aga Maksimowska

When I was a kid growing up in communist Poland, my mother used to read Astrid Lindgren’s The Bullerbyn Children books to me. I was obsessed with the brothers Lasse and Bosse from the time I could say little more than their names to the time I invented my own stories set in the tiny Swedish village.

Imagine if I had had a computer, and if the Internet existed. And if my literary hero had a Facebook account, or her own web site. Imagine also that the eight-year-old me, in my Gdańsk apartment, sent a personal message outlining my love and appreciation of Lindgren’s work, and that very e-mail was opened moments later by the 78-year-old in her Stockholm apartment: well, that would be unreal.

Writers used to be a mystery to readers. They were revered, as many are nowadays, but revered from afar. Today, the distance between writers and readers has vanished. Writers are available to their devotees for closer inspection on social media pages, open for e-mail exchanges or book club discussions via Skype.

Is this virtual closeness better, or worse? Would Astrid Lindgren hold the same firm place in my imagination if I were able to follow her on Twitter?

I don’t know whether I’ve arrived at an answer. I’m not sure I want to.

In my experience, both as a reader and a writer, this virtual closeness has thrilled me, but it has also disappointed me. Literary idols have replied to e-mails and made my day; others have ignored compliments and declined requests to visit my classroom. I’ve cringed over comments about my own writing, and cherished feedback from readers who were moved by my work.

When my debut novel, Giant, came out, I reluctantly started a blog. Shouldn’t I be writing flash fiction, I lamented to my husband, instead of flash journalism? I was apprehensive of using social media to promote the book. It feels icky, I told him. Shouldn’t someone else be doing this? Isn’t this a publicist’s job?

As it turns out, my ever-encouraging husband said, it’s this writer’s job.

He was right. In this ever-changing publishing landscape, with the modest resources of an independent publisher behind me, promoting my book on the Internet and social media is my job. If I don’t believe in Giant, why should others?

I can’t lie: the icky feeling hasn’t completely gone away. Sometimes I long to trade the time I spend doing publicity work with writing my next book.

I look forward to discussing our new reality with my fellow debut novelists at the IFOA roundtable entitled Novelists for a New Age. When that job is done, I will listen to some of my literary idols read from their works. I will gush as they autograph my copies of their novels before returning home to place the books on the shelf beside Astrid Lindgren’s stories.

Maksimowska will appear at IFOA on October 21 at 4pm, alongside fellow debut novelists Matt Lennox, Stacey Madden, Grace O’Connell and Tanis Rideout. For more about Giant, visit maksimowska.com.

IFOA begins with Rohinton Mistry’s music

By Janet Somerville

For many years the PEN Canada Benefit has had the privilege of the opening night slot at IFOA. Its essential work defending writers, promoting literature and preserving freedom of expression makes it a natural partnership. This year the Empty Chair on every IFOA stage is filled by Eritrean journalist and playwright Dawit Isaak, imprisoned since Fall 2001.

© readings.org

Thursday night’s event found a robust crowd filling the Fleck Dance Theatre eager to spend an evening in the rare company of Giller Prize-winner Rohinton Mistry, a longtime supporter of PEN Canada and its mission. Billed as an evening of words and music, I wondered if the notoriously shy Mistry would break into song, accompanying himself on a ukelele.

There were no stringed instruments on the stage, but Mistry’s warm buttery baritone filled the room as he read from a new piece grounded in his father’s gramophone records and he sang in Gene Autry’s voice “Don’t Fence Me In”—”Oh give me land, lots of land, under sunny skies above, don’t fence me in.” Utterly charming.

Musing “where did it begin for me the journey from there to here,” Mistry suggested that his “long and winding road from Bombay to Toronto” started with the shellacked discs of 45s, 78s and 33s his father spun on his gramophone—that magical machine that “shouldered the weight of his dreams.” As a boy, he pressed his cheek against the polished wood and “could imagine the music becoming a part of me.” And, it has.

If you were lucky enough to share in the joy and diversion of the songs that tripped wondrously off of Mistry’s storytelling tongue, you’ll understand why he referred to himself during his conversation with Eleanor Wachtel as “the vocal Zelig.” Next time Mistry appears on stage I hope he brings his guitar and harmonica and performs Dylan AS Dylan. That’d be really something.

© readings.org

When asked what he misses from India, Mistry paused, then declared, “you can be homesick for the past. I miss the monsoon. It’s a grand spectacle. The breeze of the Arabian Sea, like silk upon the skin. Remembering brings with it a benediction. It brings understanding.” I know what he means.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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